By Grant Shilling
Well, come on, man you better jump right in
This is one game that everybody’s in
Don’t care where you’ve been, don’t care how you look
It’s hell fire, man, you’re in, you gotta cook
We don’t care what you say – fuck you!
–“Fuck You” by Gerry “Useless” Hannah, Subhumans
It’s November 2001 and Joey “Shithead” Keithley of DOA, the legendary Vancouver punk group, is firing up a Cumberland, British Columbia crowd with a chorus of cathartic FUCK YOUs. The put-downs are for the province’s Liberal government and their bone-headed decision to remove the “Ginger Goodwin Way” signs that dot the new Vancouver Island Autobahn. The signs were designated in 1996 by the NDP provincial government in memory of the labour martyr, who was shot in the back by the RCMP in 1918 in the woods just outside of Cumberland. Keithley, who has written a song about Goodwin, was invited by local labour leaders to take part in the Cumberland rally. Ginger Goodwin was a worker’s friend who fought for a 40-hour work week. Many consider Goodwin the Che Guevara of the region. Others consider him a coward for taking a pacifist’s stand during World War I.
“Fuck You” is an old Subhuman’s song, which DOA initially covered in 1983 as part of a benefit single to provide support for Subhuman singer Gerry Hannah and the other members of the Squamish Five. “Fuck You” is the verbal equivalent of a bomb. It is a total rejection of structure, power or polite society. “Fuck You” is non-negotiable, nihilistic and knowing. It is the essence of punk and once uttered it often finds its agents. Hannah was one of those agents.
In the early 1980s Gerry “Useless” Hannah left the seminal Vancouver punk band Subhumans and joined an underground group of saboteurs who named themselves Direct Action. The group, dubbed by the media as “the Squamish Five,” were responsible for a campaign of dramatic actions culminating in the bombing of a Hydro Substation on Vancouver Island and the Litton Systems plant in Toronto in 1982. The Squamish Five were arrested on the Sea to Sky mountain highway (the road to Squamish) in B.C. in 1983. Hannah would serve five years for his part in the actions.
On the 20th anniversary of the first activities by Direct Action, and in light of the anti-terrorist laws proliferating across the world in the wake of the events of September 11 (including Canada’s ominous C-36), now is the time to gain some perspective on the group.
Clearly, I’m not the only one who thinks so. Direct Action: Memoirs of an Urban Guerrilla (Between the Lines Publishers) by former “Five” member Ann Hansen, has just been released and Hansen will also be the subject of a CBC Fifth Estatedocumentary this spring. Useless, a documentary by BC filmmaker Glen Sanford which explores the life and actions of Gerry Hannah, recently played to a raucous and supportive crowd at the Vancouver Underground Film Festival (held at the fantastic Blinding Light! Cinema in November).
All these works, including Keithley’s semi-nostalgic rendering of the Subhumans song, provide an opportunity to reconsider the links between dissent, culture and what may in the future be called terrorism. After all, aspects of the far reaching Bill C-36 anti-terrorist bill include “Preventative Detention,” which gives the police the power to throw anyone in jail they choose, without justification or recourse for the detainee. In the bill, there is no definition or benchmark for what actually defines terrorism, leaving the powers handed to the police force and government rife with the potential for abuse. Similar laws are in place in the U.S. and U.K. At a time when activism and terrorism are all being lumped together, we can consider these works as welcome reflections on the criminalization of civil disobedience. We can also consider the Keithley performance, the Hansen book and the Sanford documentary as important reminders of the way cultural activity plays a role in the fight for memory.
An example of the way time and culture change perspective can be found in the shifting legacy of Metis revolutionary Louis Riel. Riel led a lengthy campaign in the 19th century to secure a homeland for the Metis (half Native, half French) people of Canada. As leader of a rogue army, he was considered a terrorist at the time, and hung by the Canadian government for his troubles. Today, he is a hero to many. On the same day Bill C-36 passed, Thelma Chalifoux, the first Metis senator, stated that her private member’s bill declaring Louis Riel a Canadian hero and calling for May 12th to be officially declared Louis Riel Day, has enough support in Parliament to become a law by next spring.
Still, there remains much controversy about Riel and his legacy. This is controversy that has been played out not in the hallowed halls of politics but in the dirty back rooms of cultural policy. A justly famous statue in Winnipeg – the work of architect Etienne Gaboury and sculptor Marcien Lemay – unveiled on the grounds of the Manitoba legislative building in 1970 shows a tormented Riel, his naked body twisted into muscled knots. The statue is compelling and clearly conveys a sense of a great man thwarted and betrayed. But in 1995, that statue was moved across the river to St. Boniface College where it sits, barely noticed, facing a small parking lot. A far less enticing conventional sculpture replaced the original. It shows a statesman-like Riel standing tall in suit and tie. To prevent the removal of the Lemay statue, the artist and a supporter staged an ineffectual protest and chained themselves to the original.
Chester Brown is a Toronto comic artist whose illustrated history of Riel is being published in serial form by Montreal-based Drawn and Quarterly. I called him up and asked him if he considers Riel a hero, and what kind of relationship there is between heroes, dissent and culture.
“The whole question of how we create heroes certainly helps when we have storytellers telling and retelling stories,” Brown tells me. Brown defines a hero as “Someone who acts selflessly, in a good cause. Especially exposing themselves to possible danger, possibly physical danger.” While Brown sees some of Riel’s actions as heroic, he’d prefer to leave the final decision up to his readers.
Brown is probably wise to defer on the question of who is and is not a hero. The grey areas between terrorism, heroism and dissent are something that is often sorted out by time. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. With the anti-terrorist Bill C-36 now law in Canada, we are forced to consider what defines terrorism – something both Riel and the Squamish Five could have been accused of. It is only with the perspective of time that we begin to realise the role dissent plays and how individual acts of defiance which at one time might appear criminal may eventually be considered heroic. But Brown’s comic celebrating Riel also reminds us that it is up to us to reconsider and remember the past. We have to choose our own heroes, or it will get done for us.
“It takes a long time for people to appreciate the heart behind dissident opinion and activism on that [opinion],” says Hannah, on the phone from suburban Burnaby, B.C., where he grew up. “Not that I’m holding Direct Action up as some kind of shining example of liberating human kind but I do think that what we believed in was valuable. We weren’t doing it because we wanted to fill our own pockets. We were doing it because we were concerned that the world was going to be annihilated by nuclear war. That’s what led us to our actions. We went to jail for that. You can argue with our tactics and our methods, but can you argue with those sentiments?”
This current provincial Liberal era of cutbacks and programs meant to marginalize and criminalize the poor is evocative of a British Columbia Socred government 20 years earlier. It was in this climate that the punk scene in B.C. was developing and the Squamish Five emerged. 20 years later punks young and old are still here to say fuck you, which begs the question: what is the link between punk and dissent?
“The Subhumans ‘Fuck You’ was a mentality and an anthem. The song was a rallying cry for people from Los Angeles to Vancouver,” Useless filmmaker Glen Sanford tells me.
“Punk rock effected the way I saw the world. I grew up in a small town and didn’t have much exposure to that kind of rebellion,” says Sanford. In fact, he was born in small town Courtenay located in the centre of Vancouver Island just down the road from Cumberland. It wasn’t until he moved to Vancouver to attend the University of British Columbia that he was exposed to punk. “Punk made me realise that it’s okay to be angry about the political conditions of the world we live in and to express that rage in a positive way. Punk rock gigs were fun and there was a real sense of community there too.”
“Young people are impatient, they want to bring about change fast,” says Sanford who has worked as a campaign manager for the NDP both federally and provincially. “Punk rock wasn’t bringing about the social change that some players might have initially hoped for. In some ways it wasn’t surprising that Hannah moved from that kind of rebellion into a different kind of rebellion that involved Direct Action strategies.”
Sanford’s documentary features late 70s and early 80s Subhuman concert footage, media coverage of the arrest in 1983 and interviews with Hannah since his release from prison up to the present day. In the film Hannah’s mom recalls coming home from work one day and finding Joey Keithley’s drum kit set up in her living room. “I didn’t know it was punk rock,” she recalls, “it was just the neighbourhood kids.”
Keithley is credited with suggesting Hannah and friends stop wanking off on 70s Pink Floyd and get with the punk program.
“When you are young you have this kind of anger — this Arrrrghhh!, shouting at the world kind of thing. After awhile you have to figure out what specifically you are going to shout at,” says Keithley, backstage at the Cumberland gig. “But I think that kind of rebelliousness was always part of rock and roll. It was in the jazz of the thirties and forties. It was in early rockabilly. It was in the counterculture of the late 60s that I was really effected by.”
For Gerry “Useless” Hannah punk rock was a powerful musical and political tool. Hannah, now working as a snow plow operator and involved in a loving relationship, feels that punk rock was music for people who didn’t really fit, because “they knew the game, saw the game too clearly and couldn’t pretend. I was always one of those people… With punk rock I found something — some art – which reflected that.”
“For some people there is no connection between punk rock and activism. To them punk is merely a musical style or fad but to the more serious, punk rock is the ‘soundtrack to the revolution’ for a lot of activists,” says Keithley making reference to the gathering in Cumberland. “It has a connection to activism the same way that folk music had and still has and the way rock used to in the late 60s and the early 70s.”
For Hannah, the mid-70s music scene wasn’t challenging any preconceptions of what life was supposed to be about: “It seemed that it had been co-opted by the establishment completely. I was really a fan of the late sixties music. Music by people like Hendrix, The Byrds, and to a certain extent The Doors. People that weren’t afraid to talk about things politically and weren’t afraid to challenge things.
“Then all of a sudden I heard the Sex Pistols and Johnny Rotten screaming in animal anger. Here was a band that was not afraid to sing about real issues again. About people going and having holidays at Belsen and places where people were gassed in concentration camps. He was saying ‘Hey let’s not forget about this. The ideas that led to this kind of thing are right here among us still. We haven’t dealt with them. We’ve just failed them.’ I thought it was brilliant. I still think that John Lydon is basically a genius.”
The “Useless” nickname he says derived from “the fact that I knew people would see me as a useless guy because I played punk rock music, I was unskilled and uneducated.”
The scene for much of this music was the Smiling Buddha night-club in the downtown East side of Vancouver. It was there that Ann Hansen, Brent Taylor, Julie Belmas and Gerry Hannah all met on their way to being the Five (Doug Stewart was the fifth member). In one of the chapters of her book Hansen evokes the late 70s era of the Smiling Buddha and what motivated the reasons for punk. “The kids at the Smiling Buddha were the ones who didn’t come from families that could afford the expensive education so essential for a job. As their music so frequently reminded us, theirs was a world of no future, no hope. Their music was filled with warnings of suicide and death, cries of anguish and despair.”
Ann Hansen describes her upbringing as idyllic, a childhood spent in the Ontario countryside dreaming of horses, and in high school as an honours student and a cheerleader. Hansen finds it difficult to explain how she chose the path she did, only to say that some things are a “mystery” and that she always felt sympathetic to the underdog and an “intuitive dislike for the wealthy.”
One of the themes Hansen constantly repeats in her book is the relative isolation Direct Action operated in and its inability to draw a larger constituency. Was there not a ready-made group of rebels in punk rock, particularly given that much of the Vancouver punk rock scene was political?
Hansen feels that due to the highly illegal nature of the Five’s activity, operating in secrecy and going underground ultimately was their only option. “That said, the dominant counter-culture movement at the time was the punk community. I just don’t know how you would organise them,” says Hansen who notes that she herself was not a punk. “I was from a different era.”
“Politically, punk rock made us re-evaluate the idea of leadership and challenge the whole notion of authority,” notes Sanford. “What do you do when you know something is wrong and feel powerless to do something about it?”
The do-it yourself ethic of punk rock is consistent with direct action philosophy. To act directly is to address the actual issue of your concern. If you’re working against hunger, it might be simply giving someone a meal. If you’re working against homelessness, it might be taking over an abandoned house and making it liveable. Direct action differs from symbolic protest action, which is everything from lobbying someone in authority to change their policies or putting together a documentary about a punk-star-turned dissident. An advantage to direct action is that it doesn’t require the co-operation of the authorities – cultural or political – to be effective.
This is a perspective that Hansen still holds to this day. “I wouldn’t say that I’ve changed a lot in my politics actually,” says Hansen who served seven years in prison for her actions. “The difference is that I can see in retrospect there is not enough support out there to justify a small guerrilla underground.” Hansen who now lives and works on a farm near Kingston giggles nervously and adds, “I shouldn’t be saying this because I’m still on parole but, we shouldn’t allow the state to determine what is right and what is wrong and what is illegal. I think people should be determining that amongst themselves.”
No longer playing punk rock music, with three years of university under his belt and still very much politically engaged, Gerry Hannah still sees himself on the outside looking in.
“What drove me from punk rock was that it was becoming extremely violent,” says Hannah. “There was a lot of totally senseless violence being carried out at gigs and I was just sick of seeing it. I was sick of seeing people who were supposedly claiming that they wanted some sort of better or alternative world, but they were perpetuating the violence that they had seen around them.”
Keithley, who recently ran for the provincial Green Party in B.C. garnering 15% of the vote from 2,600 “wise constituents”, feels that punk rock is still sound as a way to organise and agitate. He started his own punk rock label, Sudden Death Records, in 1979 (put to sleep for awhile and revived in 1998, Sudden Death has now released 40 records) and is quick to dismiss the role of random violence in punk which happens only, he says, “when there are idiots there.”
“I still get just as angry at the bill of goods we are being sold by society, but I’m less judgmental now,” says Hannah.
“I realise that there are people on every side of the political spectrum that believe in what they are doing and are doing good things.”
Ann Hansen says that she sees the movement of people that weren’t behind Direct Action are now present at the WTO and APEC protests. In fact Hannah, Keithley and Hansen all see the current climate of globalisation as a rallying point for a revolutionary movement. While Hansen considers her story a cautionary tale, she wrote the book to encourage more militancy — not less. She hopes that she “doesn’t die soon, because I don’t want to be remembered just for Direct Action. I want to be involved in the revolutionary movement right now.” Hansen’s prison experience was emotionally debilitating and she feels she is just beginning to be able to once again become politically engaged. For the longest time she was “emotionally dead to it all.”
Sanford says he made the Useless film because the Squamish Five and the punk rock movement that was part of that world are an important part of Canadian history, no matter how one perceives their actions.
This leaves the figures of that time in the strange position of being elders to a movement. I asked Keithley if he sees it that way.
“Geez, it sounds like I’m in the Mormon church or something like that,” says Keithley. “But, ya,” he concedes “I guess I am. If anything I’m an example of how anger and dissent can be used as a powerful yet peaceful force.”
“Here’s an interesting question,” says Hannah. “When is a person no longer a terrorist if they were considered a terrorist at one time? Are they no longer a terrorist after they’re arrested? Are they no longer a terrorist after they’re convicted? Are they no longer a terrorist after they’ve served their sentence? Or are they no longer a terrorist after they’re dead?”
How does Hannah think he’ll be remembered by history? “50 years from now they’ll still think we’re jerks,” he laughs,
“but 200 years from now they might think we’re great.” Hannah notes the role dissent plays in who we are as Canadians and what this country is. He cites such figures as Tommy Douglas, Emily Carr, The Group of Seven, Ginger Goodwin and Louis Riel. “I mean they hanged him, and now he’s recognised as a hero.”
Grant Shilling is Editor and Publisher of The GIG -Gulf Islands Gazette an alternative story telling rag for the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island. Shilling’s The Cedar Surf: An Oral History of Surfing on B.C.’s West Coast is to be published by New Star Book in 2002.
20 years after, Grant Shilling ponders the legacy of the “Squamish Five” and the future of punk activism in a post-9/11 world